Students organising freshers’ week at Loughborough have been criticised for deciding to host a “slave auction” and “slave night”. At first glance, the slave auction appears to be another clichéd relic of banter that is expectedly divisive – some may find it funny, others may find it in bad taste. The decision to prohibit or condemn it is likely to be characterised as one made out of the intent of preventing offence. Of course, I highly doubt that the freshers’ committee is actively racist and does, in fact, condone slavery.
Yet a belief that the backlash against the event is due to the ‘offence’ it causes, neglects the fact that such “humour has repercussive harms for people of colour (PoC) that extend far beyond mere offense. The auction adds to an ongoing trend of appropriating historical injustices under the title of “banter” and “edginess”. It makes campus unwelcome to a core demographic group amongst the freshers that the very committee – ironically – is trying to welcome.
First, the would-be (now cancelled) auction trivialises the abhorrence of slavery. It portrays the dynamic of slavery as a vehicle for entertainment, as a source of comic relief. In particular, scheduling the event during black appreciation month allows for the auction to be read in conjunction with the subjugation of African Americans under the slave trade.
Of course, this is not to say that the joke slave auction is in any way equivalent to genuine slavery. Yet the harms brought about by trivialisation precisely do not derive from the imitation of the full harms of the historical slave trade, but the contrast of horrific images of slavery against the in-jokes and “banter” gained from the process.
The event is disrespectful because it exploits the images and discourses of suffering and places them within a comic context. This argument stands regardless of the demographics of the participants, and the extent to which the par- ticipating parties consent – the harm originates not from how it plays out in actuality, but the very symbolism of slavery being coopted and ‘modified’ for the sake of entertainment.
What’s more, the auction – alongside the “slave night”, “cowboys and Indians”, and various other events lined up for the week – exemplifies an ongoing trend of reappropriation of historical injustices. To laugh, to mock, to pay, to dominate, and to subjugate as a part of the slave auction is to posit that the denigration and dehumanisation of individuals can be funny.
To say dissenting voices “can’t take a joke” suggests that slavery can be a joke. Whilst this may be true for students whose history and current social statuses have suffered little at the hands of the transatlantic slave trade, the same could not be said for PoC who are continually reminded, by pathetic attempts to whitewash public memories that the suffering of there ancestors is up for debate, and can be obfuscated.
The purpose of a freshers’ committee is to make the incoming students feel safe. The experiences of incoming students are supposed to matter – particularly when the entertainment brings along with it little to no constructive value beyond deriving mirth from the wounds and pains of victims of the slave trade in the past.
Finally, such auctions or “banter” make the campus deeply unwelcoming for students of colour. Notice that the very same historical events could be experienced and interpreted differently by individuals from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. A white individual may conceptualise slavery as an egregious error, as a relic of the past, and as a historical atrocity that is apparently not in any way equivalent to the parody put on by the freshers’ committee at Loughborough University.
For many students, slavery is an event of the past. Yet for many PoC living in an actively racist society filled with oppressive incarceration complexes, discriminatory employers and police forces, and bigots emboldened by recent events such as Brexit and Trump’s presidency, the power dynamics of white subjugation and dominance are still very much present and active.
For many PoC – particularly freshers who are unlikely to have had extensive opportunities to build up supportive networks of friends at the university prior to arrival – the so-called ‘joke’ auc- tion sends out the signal that the campus may not take their experiences of racism seriously, or that the students they interact with may nd their present subjugation a potential subject of humour.
The “anti-PC” movement brands students who object to racist, sexist, or bigoted speech (in gen- eral) as ‘snow flakes’. It’s easy to accuse others of being snow akes when one is blinded by one’s own privilege. It’s also very easy to nd others’ suffering and historical injustice hilarious “banter” when it’s not you whose historical and present experiences are bound up with the oppression of the past. The liberal consensus is that campus environments are overwhelmingly safe for minorities and oppressed groups. Incidents like those at Loughborough suggest that there is a long way to go prior to that idea becoming the reality.